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Fire pushes west, prompting more evacuations and a rescue attempt [Updated]

August 31, 2009 |  1:41 pm

151689.ME.0831.Fire2.WJS

The Station fire marched west today, prompting new evacuations in the Sunland-Tujunga area as authorities moved to rescue five people who refused to evacuate in the Gold Canyon area.

Officials said a Los Angeles County sheriff's helicopter was going to try to find the residents, who live off Little Tujunga Road.

Firemap[Updated at 1:24 p.m.: Officials said the five people initially refused to leave their homes when the evacuation order was issued. But since then, firefighters have set back fires in the area, and the people have now asked to be rescued. The Sheriff's Department considered sending a helicopter but was told by fire officials that conditions were not safe. Spokesman Steve Whitmore said the department is now monitoring conditions and trying to figure out how to get to them.

[Updated at 1:50 p.m.: Sixty-five firefighters withdrew from Chilao Flats near the Chilao ranger station. "The intensity of the fire was too strong," said L.A. County Fire Capt. Henry Rodriguez. "They were pulled off the lines and drove away in their vehicles. They're safe and all OK." ]

The new evacuation area covered 300 homes and was bounded by Apperson Street, Sevenhills Drive and  Glory Avenue. The western flank of the Station fire, which has destroyed at least 21 homes and killed two firefighters, was burning within a few miles of Santa Clarita and toward Sylmar.

On the eastern flank, crews battling the Station fire believe that it's only a matter of time before the deadly blaze hits Mt. Wilson, but officials are hopeful that frantic work by hand crews and aircraft dropping flame retardant will protect the communications centers there.

"There is a good chance the fire will hit Mt. Wilson today," said Ray Dombroski, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service. "The fire is currently on two sides of Mt. Wilson, about one-half mile to the north and about one mile southwest."

All firefighters were taken off the mountain earlier this morning, he said. Mt. Wilson Road, a narrow, winding two-lane road, has been closed since 6 a.m. Dombroski said it is too dangerous to have firefighters near the communication towers and the observatory complex.

Firefighters plan to use fixed-wing aircraft to drop fire retardant on the mountain, he said.

Inspector Edward Osorio of the Los Angeles County Fire Department estimated property damage from the fire at $7,671,000 and rising.

The fire is expected to move in a northeasterly direction, and officials are putting significant resources on the northern edge of the fire near Acton.

Officials said the goal for today is to keep the fire west of California 39 and Angeles Crest Highway; south of California 14, Pearblossom Highway and California 138; east of Interstate 5; and north of the foothill communities along the Angeles National Forest border.

The Station fire doubled in size to 85,000 acres overnight and destroyed more structures.

"That fire burned just like it was daytime. Usually you get recovery because humidity goes up at night, which slows the fire down and you're able to construct more line around the fire," said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Nathan Judy. "But last night that wasn't the case."

The exact number of homes consumed by the Station fire remains unclear, but officials said several homes south of Acton were lost last night and this morning. Earlier, 21 homes in the Tujunga Canyon area were lost, but officials expect that number to rise.

More neighborhoods were evacuated overnight as the fire pushed in three directions.

"We are making progress, but it is very slow and very dangerous," incident commander Mike Dietrich of the U.S. Forest Service said at a news conference this morning. "We have to wait for the fire to come to us." 

At the bottom of Mt. Wilson Road early this morning, firefighters bedded down in the ash-flecked open air, the forest pitch black except for the flames lighting ridgelines in the near distance. The head of the fire appeared to be across a broad and deep canyon from the Mt. Wilson compound. 

Smaller flare-ups could be seen closer to the thicket of communications towers alongside the Mt. Wilson observatory, where five engine crews were posted overnight. 

The blaze already had raced up to the winding stretch of Angeles Crest Highway that leads to Mt. Wilson Road. Road signs had melted, guardrails were burned free of their wood moorings, and the switchbacks were choked with fire-loosened boulders and scorched tree limbs.

Two firefighters were killed when they drove off the side of a treacherous road in the Mt. Gleason area, south of Acton, around 2:30 p.m. Sunday, said Los Angeles County Deputy Fire Chief Mike Bryant. They were later identified as Arnaldo Quinones, 35, of Palmdale and Tedmund Hall, 47, of San Bernardino County.

"This accident is tragic," Bryant said, choking up as he spoke Sunday evening. "This is a very difficult time for L.A. County Fire Department and the men and women that serve day in, day out."

The fallen firefighters were overseeing workers clearing brush at a Department of Corrections inmate campsite, Osorio said.

"It's still under investigation, but apparently the campsite got overrun by fire," he added.

More than 12,500 homes were threatened, and 6,600 were under mandatory evacuation orders Sunday night. Twenty-one residences have been destroyed, fire officials said, mostly in the Big Tujunga Canyon area.

The fire was 5% contained, officials said, and at least temporarily had eased off in foothill communities from La Cañada Flintridge to Altadena.

Much of Sunday turned into a blistering-hot waiting game for firefighters, who were trying to determine where the fire would move next. Rather than battling the flames in the sheer granite canyons of the interior, with heavy vegetation more than 40 years old in many areas, they cut fire lines near threatened neighborhoods.

"In this rugged, steep terrain, with this brush as thick as it is, we are having difficulties establishing containment lines where we can make a stand," said Capt. Mark Savage, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Fire Department. "This fire is still very much out of control."

Fire was burning all around Angeles Crest Highway near Mt. Wilson on Sunday evening. Earlier, hand crews cleared brush to protect the historic observatory and critical transmission towers for local television and radio stations.

The century-old observatory holds what was for decades the largest telescope in the world; it was instrumental in many of astronomy's biggest discoveries, including research that led to the "big bang" theory.

"It's a serious situation. Is the observatory going to make it? We're doing everything in our power. But I wouldn't be surprised if it is impacted by fire today or tomorrow," Bob Shindelar, operations branch director of California Incident Management Team 5, said Sunday afternoon.

More than 2,800 fire personnel from around the state have converged to battle the Station fire, along with 12 helicopters and eight air tankers.

They had hoped that the day would bring cooler, more humid air. But the red-flag fire alert was extended through today as the fire grew in all directions and sent a column of smoke high into the air -- mushrooming into a towering pyrocumulus cloud that could be seen across the Southland.

Meteorologists predicted that hot, dry conditions would continue without relent until at least Tuesday.

-- Corina Knoll at Hansen Dam

Photo: A frightened Alexis Faieta cries in the back seat as her parents April and John evacuate along Haines Canyon Ave. in Tujunga Monday. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

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